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Ford Wildlife Foundation Donates Vehicles for Ecology Research

Research on hippos, fish, herps, birds and various other mammals by postgraduate students and researchers in UKZN’s School of Life Sciences is benefitting from the donation of two Ford Ranger double cab 4×4 vehicles by the Ford Wildlife Foundation (FWF).


School of Life Sciences students and researchers celebrate the vehicle donation by FWF

The vehicles are part of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa’s (FMCSA) commitment to the conservation and preservation of the environment in sub-Saharan Africa. The FMCSA also handles maintenance of the vehicles during their use by partner organisations undertaking conservation work. 


Overseen by Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, the research activities supported by these vehicles include projects exploring the impacts of changing land use, including urbanisation, on biodiversity. 


The vehicles enable researchers to access various research and field sites across several provinces, as they are capable of traversing all kinds of terrain found in South Africa’s nature reserves, parks and protected areas, as well as in neighbouring countries. 


Downs and her team will continue their research on a range of fish, herps, bird (including vultures) and mammalian species in South Africa, focusing on the threats posed by anthropogenic land-use change. An aspect where these vehicles will be invaluable for improving conservation and management and fostering public awareness of various threatened species is examining the movement of some of these species with these changes.


The team are using the vehicles for a project on wetlands and hippos, one of Africa's iconic species. Hippos are classified as vulnerable and have experienced significant population decline since the 1990s. They are valuable to the tourism industry and play a crucial role as ecosystem engineers in their environment. 


Despite their importance, research on hippos is limited. Their reliance on threatened water bodies and adjacent grasslands, coupled with the impacts of changing land use and climate change, puts their existence at risk. This endangers aquatic and riparian environments, which already face vulnerability. 


Since 2015, Downs and her team have been studying the behaviour and ecology of hippos to better understand their ecological role in South African aquatic and terrestrial systems. The research aims to mitigate human-hippo wildlife conflicts and address gaps in knowledge of hippo ecology and behaviour. 


The team employs novel telemetry methods to assess hippo spatial ecology, home range and activity in various water bodies, including rivers, lakes and small semi-rural lake systems. Drones are also used to estimate population sizes and identify preferred habitats for hippos. 


The vehicles were also used in community fish assessments in the uMngeni and upper Mooi catchments, by pulling the team’s survey boat and equipment throughout the catchment. This has enabled the postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers to access areas such as the uMngeni-uMsunduzi Confluence and around the Midlands. 


‘The one Ford was also used to survey the fish communities along the uMsunduzi River throughout the year. The purpose of the survey is to evaluate the effects of a pollution event that resulted in a large fish kill. These sites lie along the uMsunduzi River, often only accessible by a high-clearance or 4X4 vehicle and as such, the Ford enables us to do this valuable work,’ said Dr Matthew Burnett. 


UKZN postdoctoral student – now Honorary researcher – Dr Cormac Price has focused on the urban ecology of Durban’s black mamba and Mozambique spitting cobra populations together with Nick Evans of KZN Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. This research investigates how these potentially lethal snakes live in a heavily urban environment and how there is relatively little human-snake conflict. 


Said Price, ‘Although most of the work is conducted in Durban, we must drive on sometimes rough and bad dirt roads. The snakes are released in green belt areas of dense vegetation and bush. A reliable and large vehicle is essential for the research, and the Ford Rangers assist in researching Durban’s urban snakes. The use of the vehicles is invaluable for our work in terms of their reliability, durability and space.’ 


‘We are most grateful for the FWF’s continued support of field research. Globally, there has been a decline in field research often because of the associated travel costs and difficulties in getting to field sites,’ said Downs. ‘The FWF is making a major contribution to our research capabilities with their continued and exceptional vehicle support. This allows the collection of biological information that is fundamental to improving the understanding of anthropogenic impacts on habitats and ecosystems so that these can be recognised, mitigated or averted to improve conservation strategies.’


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